The War Against Reading

Everyone knows the scary stats: 70 percent of the kids in fourth grade haven't learned to read; the country has 50 million functional illiterates, i.e., people who can't read a newspaper or cereal box; our students don't compete well against students from other countries. Is all this accidental? Or somebody's idea of tough-minded social policy?

"What a story," says education writer Bruce Deitrick Price. "You don't want to believe the worst, but all the evidence points in one direction. Eighty years ago, the people at the top, including elite educators, were terrified of massive immigration, urbanization, and industrialization. Too much upheaval. Some leaders apparently decided that slowing things down would be a good plan. What better way than to dumb down the schools? Undermining reading was very likely a part of that strategy. Perhaps they believed they were doing the best thing for the long term. In which case they were tragically short-sighted. We don't need dumb and dumber. More than ever, we need smart and smarter."

Price's new article -- a scholarly bombshell -- is "30: The War Against Reading" (http://www.improve-education.org/id46.html) on Improve-Education.org (www.Improve-Education.org). It's a long piece with lots of quotes from the main players, but the gist of it is quickly stated: educators turned away from the tried and true, and embraced a new reading pedagogy that turned out to have many disastrous side-effects.

"The big question," Price points out, "is this: how could our experts be so wrong?" English is a phonetic/alphabetic language. The normal way to teach such a language is phonetically -- children are taught to see the sounds in the words. What the educators did was counter-intuitive: they scrapped phonics and introduced Whole Word, where children have to memorize words by their shapes, the way Chinese characters are learned.

"Memorizing thousands of word-shapes is extremely difficult," Price explains. "People with excellent memories can learn to read using Whole Word but it's hard work. Whole Word readers rarely read for pleasure. They're lucky if they can manage forms, instructions, menus and so on. Children with ordinary memories are simply doomed."

Price's article is built around this chronology of the country's decline in literacy:

1920's: Whole Word first widely used.

1928: Dr. Samuel Orton reports on serious problems in a research study titled " The Sight Reading Method of Teaching Reading, as a Source of Reading Disability." He found cognitive and behavioral problems.

1930's: Educators push ahead with nationwide use of Dick-and-Jane-type readers. "See Dick run!" These books incorporate Whole Word instruction.

1955: Rudolph Flesch addresses falling reading scores in his book "Why Johnny Can't Read." He explains everything in a very convincing way; but educators refuse to be convinced.

1970's: Reading theorists Ken Goodman and Frank Smith lead counter-attack against Flesch by devising new defenses for Whole Word.

1990's: Reading scores continue to plunge. Dyslexia is widespread. Home schooling surges in popularity. Phonics makes come-back; but educators hang on to Whole Word as part of Balanced Literacy.

"As far as I can figure it out," Price says, "the top educators believed in a more managed, more Socialist society. I think it's fair to say they were blinded by their ideology; they didn't know when to stop. The policies they embraced backfired. The so-called Reading Wars have resulted in tens of millions of walking wounded and a weaker country."

A recent government study ("Prospering in the Global Economy of the 21st Century") concluded that the public schools are so bad, they are a threat to the national economy. "I'm not optimistic our educators can snap out of it," Price says. "I'm urging the business community to be more involved. To take a dominant role, if possible. I'm working now on a modest proposal I call NEI -- National Education Initiatives. That's basically my function -- throwing out ideas. Even the worst one can't be as bad as Whole Word!"

1 comments:

Bruce Price said...

This and many related articles have evolved into a book 'THE EDUCATION ENIGMA--What Happened To American Education." If you wonder why the public schools are so bad and what we need to do next, please check out my book. Short, lively, smart. On Amazon...Also visit Improve-Education.org.